Global Issues: Japan/Gender Issues/Comfort Women
This case study examines a brief overview of "Comfort Women" during World War II. This controversial issue involves girls and women termed 'comfort women' during WWII whose sole purpose was to be used as prostitutes by the Japanese soldiers. There is debate between the Japanese government and actual comfort women survivors and sympathizers as to whether the comfort women were tricked or forced into the work or were actually willing volunteers. Also debated is the Japanese government's involvement in contracting and employing the comfort women and operating the comfort stations. Though WWII seems far behind us, this issue is still a hot and unresolved topic today.
This article touches on these issues including such information as countries where the comfort women came from and the comfort stations existed, a brief timeline of important events relating to this topic, and the local as well as the global impact and significance of this controversial issue.
Most of the comfort women during WWII were from Korea but others have been documented to have come from China, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. The comfort stations themselves were located in Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the then Malaya, Thailand, the then Burma, the then New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, and the then French Indochina.
Below are important dates and details of the comfort women issue, gathered from several sources referenced within.
1932 – Japanese Lieutenant-General Okamura Yasuji seeks a solution to rapes reported by local residents, perpetrated by his Japanese troops in Shanghai, China. He requests comfort women to be sent for his soldiers as an alternative. This soon becomes common practice most anywhere the Japanese army send their troops. In order to procure these tens of thousands of comfort women, many women and families with daughters are lied to--promised factory work for the women, for instance--and then taken to the comfort stations where they are held prisoner to work as sex slaves, being raped repeatedly day and night. Other women are simply kidnapped outright or sold by parents or caretakers into the work. Very few women enter into this work willingly, and those that do were usually current prostitutes or those poor enough that they have no other choice but to accept the work to avoid starvation. An estimated 50,000 to 200,000 women are suspected to have been employed as comfort women for the over two million soldiers in service during the war.
1945 – The war ends and comfort stations with it. Most comfort women, on penalty of both personal and family shame and embarrassment, do not talk about their experiences, much less make an issue of it.
1988 – Professor Yun Chung Ok of Ehwa Women's University in Korea--where most comfort women are presumed to have come from--conducts and presents research about comfort women with her activist group, bringing the issue back into the spotlight.
1990 – Thirty-seven Korean women's groups form the Voluntary Service Corps Problem Resolution Council and demand that the Japanese government admit that Korean women were forcibly drafted to serve as comfort women during the war, that they publicly apologize, fully disclose what happened, raise a memorial, compensate survivors or their living families, and include the facts in historical education. The Japanese government denies that women were ever forced into such work and that their government had no involvement with the operation of the comfort stations, though they do not deny their existence.
1991 – Three former Korean comfort women file a lawsuit against the Japanese government.
1992 – Professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki of Chuo University finds and presents wartime documents that confirm the Japanese government’s involvement in operating comfort stations. The government shortly thereafter admits to its involvement.
1993 – Eighteen former Filipina comfort women file a lawsuit against the Japanese government. The Kono Statement is issued by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono which officially reports on the results of investigations into the comfort women matter. It is debated on whether or not this is a true apology.
1995 – The Japanese government sets up the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF); a private organization established to make payouts to former comfort women. The Japanese government funds only the AWF's operational costs, living expenses, and health care, however money paid out to victims is from private donations only leaving many former comfort women, their families, and supporters unsatisfied with the distancing the Japanese government places between itself, its funds, and the victims. Many refuse to be paid out due to their dissatisfaction.
2005 – The term “comfort women” was deleted from Japanese school text books, thereby decreasing awareness and seriousness of the issue.
2009 – Over the course of these many years, many lawsuits have been denied or are still pending while the now-elderly survivors filing them are likely to die before a verdict is reached. Japan, though they attest differently, still has yet to officially admit or apologize for their involvement in the WWII comfort women/sex slave industry.
While the issue of comfort women took place mostly abroad during WWII, it is now an issue that threatens Japan’s reputation and standing with other nations (whether affected by this matter directly or not), most importantly and including their allies. By prolonging an accepted resolution on this topic, especially after decades have passed since its occurrence, it casts a bad image of Japan and the Japanese government in many other nations' eyes.
The Japanese people as well as the government of Japan seem to be at different points of acceptance and belief with the comfort women issue. Some are still in denial, saying that it either never happened or that the women voluntarily took the jobs knowing that they would be prostitutes, while yet others are pushing for their government to not only admit their involvement but to also make the proper reparations so that everyone--victims and transgressors alike--can move on and try, at long last, to put the past behind them.
Admitting that one is wrong is a difficult thing to do. For a government to admit their fault and, on top of that, pay great sums of money due to their admission, it is an even greater difficulty to overcome. However, it is the belief of the author that if the Japanese government has more to gain from an admission, such as the strengthened alliances between other countries, then they may be more willing to work toward admitting this past transgression. As it stands currently, they seem to believe that they have more to lose.
Global Impact & Significance
The issue of comfort women during WWII spans many countries around the world, even those not initially involved, such as the United States. The comfort women matter is an unsightly obstacle in the way of Japan's relations with other countries and, though it may be viewed by some as a minor issue due to the length of time ago which it occurred, it is still a pebble in everyone's shoe and will continue to be an irritant until the matter is satisfactorily resolved.
After getting nowhere with the Japanese government for reparations, many countries whose citizens were victimized have turned to the UN and, specifically the United States, for help in convincing the Japanese government to make an official apology and make the proper reparations to the victims themselves or to their surviving families. Thus far, Japan has yet to yield to these demands.
Lastly, lobbyists and supporters pushing for the Japanese government to atone for their involvement in the comfort stations have other motives besides aiding those victimized during WWII. Such situations as the comfort women faced over 50 years ago are reported to be still continuing today in Southeast Asia in the form of those similar to the methods reportedly used to trick young girls and women into becoming comfort women--hiring agencies promising jobs abroad and then, when the girls and women arrive, their passports are taken and they are forced into prostitution. Some Asian countries are even known to offer incentives to their male employees in the form of trips to brothels and/or tours to the brothels in other countries as a reward for a job well done.
The fact that women are still seen by some as mere sex objects for the sole use of providing pleasure to men is an issue still occurring today all over the world as can be seen in media, cultural attitudes and double standards regarding sex, and political laws and policies. By forcing Japan into fully admitting their fault and making satisfactory reparations, these women's and human rights supporters are hoping to send a message to those still believing that such acts are permissible and easily dismissed. Hopefully by doing this, it will help change the way women are viewed and treated, especially during a war.
Impact on the Author
As a woman, the rape and commodification of other women is an issue that pains me deeply. This research was difficult at times, especially reading some of the testimonials, both from comfort women victim survivors and those of former Japanese soldiers who used the comfort stations during the war. I am sure that this is a matter which will take many more years to resolve, however I do hope that the Japanese government--whether directly at fault or not--will do the right thing and take responsibility for the matter. This is not an issue that will disappear with time--at least, it shouldn’t be. If something such as this is allowed to be forgotten, it will only help to ensure that it happens again.
- Reuters UK FACTBOX: Disputes over Japan's wartime "comfort women" continue (Mar. 5, 2007). Retrieved May 17, 2009.
- Comfort Women by Dottie Horn (1997). Retrieved May 17, 2009.
- Policy Forum Online: Protecting the Human Rights of Comfort Women by Mindy L. Kotler (Mar. 29, 2007). Retrieved May 17, 2009.
- Harper's Magazine. Cold Comfort: the Japan Lobby Blocks Resolution on WWII Sex Slaves by Ken Silverstein (Oct. 5, 2006). Retrieved May 17, 2009.
- SeniorJournal.com Elderly World War II 'Comfort Women' Lose Suit in Japan (Feb. 26, 2009). Retrieved May 17, 2009.